Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Del Kathryn Barton @ Kaliman Gallery

Sometimes in an exhibition you can find the most unlikely piece that allows you to see where an artist might have taken things.  Del Kathryn Barton's 'The Star Eat Your Body' is a restless exhibition that swerves between the familiar taken to a huge scale and the small but liberating thrash of experimentation.  The innate tension in Barton's work is between the big eyed graphic illustrative style, all fragile candy and a kind of tremulous sexuality that oozes out from bloodshot watercolours and direct stares.  As ever the most disturbing and rewarding work remains unresolved in that area.  Working along these borders is tricky, on either side lies something quite formulaic, to balance those trajectories takes something much more than just a formula.  That's why it's sometimes easy to find Barton's  work too cute to more than nibble at, whilst at other times we can be transfixed.

The two penis pieces demonstrate the dilemma most clearly.  In one series hung (and I really wanted to avoid that pun hazard) together six erects cocks are overprinted, in lush silver gelatin, with lace doilies.  The tiled effect looks like Gilbert & George, the medium like transgressive surrealist photography.  It's jarring in a kind of raised eyebrow way, and whilst there is a visual contrast between solid flesh and cobweb lace, between vertical and circular, it does scream 'look at how daring I am'.  

On the adjacent wall is a painted work, 'My Slow Body of Love' which, not that much more subtly, captures something far more interesting.  A phallic shape pushes up from the bottom of the frame and is engulfed in an intricate pattern, part cloud part vagina.  All of the visual echoes are direct and graphic, it's not coy, and yet the meaning is complex and opaque.  Barton captures sensation, the otherness of two bodies perhaps even transcendent sex.  It is vastly different from her other figurative work and yet seems like a natural progression, a contemplation of space and bodies.  She also makes it appear perfectly natural to assimilate some of the patterns and textures that feel familiar from aboriginal painting.  At her best she uses this to capture a sense of the blur between spirit and body, that effect of the physical and spiritual might be why aboriginal art can speak eloquently to us even when we have no sense of cultural meaning.  Its much to Barton's credit that this doesn't feel gratuitous.

The centrepiece of the show, a huge polyptych 'We too have been there, though we shall land no more' is a kind of stoner version of the Beethoven Secession frieze in Vienna.  The scale and scope make it a little bad made, which is endearing, but the grab bag of reference from David Cronenburg body horror, through star children and thylacines.  For all its incredible layers of detail it feels there's less here than meets the eye.  The manga plumbing and psychedelic washes and doodles seem to frame a piece where women, Barton's signature cow eyed and gaunt gamines, and nature are identified as having close simpatico, into this Garden of Eden come black serpents, a heavy metaphor for a maleness that's something less than benign.  It could give you a headache after a while.
There is a quality Barton's work that can be arresting, it might sit between the forensic linework and the gauzy colour, the neurotic detail and the big gesture, but it never quite ignites here.  For a show with quite so much exuberant penetration I felt oddly intact.   Del Kathryn Barton might be finding her future in these pictures, and that suspicion does make for interesting viewing, I just hope that the path chosen retains that ache of ambiguity and takes it somewhere surprising.

1 comment:

  1. there seem to references to henry darger too, especially in that long painting with the long title.

    thanks for writing, i enjoy your eye, stern though it is.